Monday, 25 January 2010

Customer care

I was leaving the FAO building in Rome a few days ago when a display of half-price books caught my eye in the international bookshop there, run, I believe, by the Lion Bookshop. The last thing I need is more books, so naturally - in the way these vices perpetuate themselves - I stopped to see what was on offer and found some nice new Penguin editions of a handful of Maigret novels marked down from €10 to €5. I'm a sucker for Simenon (I can't believe I just typed that), so I picked out four and walked into the shop to pay. There were two women behind the counter, neither of whom showed much inclination to attend to me, so I waited in my usual polite way until one of them took the books off me in a crabby, ill-humoured way, as though I'd interrupted her in some more rewarding task. I told her, in English - it was, after all, an international bookshop - that they came from the half-price box outside. Ignoring me, she asked her colleague - in Italian - who had put the books there. Pat, said the other woman. She had no right, snapped Crabby. I can get full price for these books. Well, I don't know, said the other one, you'd better ask Pat when she gets in. She can't just take books off the shelves and put them in the box when she feels like it, continued Crabby. The other woman shrugged. Well, you'll have to tell her yourself, she said, while I stood there, wallet in hand, waiting for the discussion to finish. Eventually, I asked Crabby, also in Italian, if she intended to sell me the books or not. My intention, if not my tone, was ironic. She clutched the Maigrets to her chest. I suppose I can give you a 30% discount, she said, in a tone that suggested I'd been caught in the act of extracting a tenner from her purse. Normally, if anger is a cooking technique, I'm more of a pot roast than a stir fry, but this time my temper flared and I told the woman I wouldn't have the books if she gave me them, and left. But I wish I'd made her sell them to me at the full discount, if only out of spite. What she's done, of course, is make it unlikely that an incorrigible book-buyer (me) will use the shop again; she's also responsible for this post. On the other hand, she did save €6.

Thinking about it afterwards, I realise I shouldn't have been surprised. The main branch of the Lion Bookshop is notorious for its ill-mannered staff and over-priced stock, despite its claim to be an important reference point for the English speaking community. Perhaps someone should tell them about the Almost Corner Bookshop.

Friday, 22 January 2010

It should be part of the deal

I was going to do a simple post today, celebrating my blog's third birthday. But I've just received an email that I thought I'd share with you instead. It comes from someone who doesn't sign his (her?) name but shops at Waitrose and mails from the address The subject is "It should be part of the deal that I as an individual is (sic) told the book I am reading is written by a homosexual."

Had I known you were homosexual I would not have chosen to read your book. But once bitten............. etc! Your plea (read this) for others to see reason and accept homosexuality falls on deaf ears with myself and the majority of people. The recent years of outpouring of vile homosexual promotion from every corner, has done them no favours whatsoever. Instead we now know "homophobic" attacks have never been greater. I am not in anyway supporting this, just reporting facts.

But why should we (the general public) be forced to agree with such depravity. When gays become unwell, as they will, it is of their own making. They bring about their own demise. Penetrating the anus, the bodies sewage system is an extraordinary low life act. Why would anyone ever want to engage in any activity that involves their own and others faeces?! It is the most direct way to pass life eroding disease from one individual to another.

The only cure for A.I.D.S is to stop the debauchery that causes it.

I'm not sure which of my books ckr has read, but I hope the experience wasn't too distressing (or, indeed, faecal). In the meantime, it might be worth considering some sort of colour code indicating the sexual preferences of all authors to protect such delicate readers. And why stop at authors? Why not doctors? Busdrivers? It should be part of the deal....

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Fear and loathing in Empoli

This sign, which forbids entry to all Chinese who don't speak Italian, can be found* in the window of a clothes shop in Empoli, near Florence. In an Italy that seems to have woken up and found itself racist and can't quite work out why, this looks like just one small tile in an increasingly large and ugly mosaic, if that isn't too colourful a term for the phenomenon. But there's an interesting and, to my mind at least, partly mitigating, story behind the sign. The owner of the shop, Gino Pacilli, says that he's sick and tired of Chinese customers coming into the shop, examining the way the clothes are made, trying them on, refusing to speak Italian when he asks them if he can help, leaving without buying or saying Grazie. He claims that they're simply checking out the competition and looking for items they can profitably make copies of, undercutting the legit producers from whom he buys his stock (almost certainly made in China). It's certainly true that there's a massive presence of Chinese sweatshops, invariably both illegal and exploitative, producing clothes in the Florence area, and that the Chinese community is the least interested of all ethnic communities in integration, to the point of concealing its birth and death rates from the local authorities so that documents can be recycled (Chinese immigrants to Italy rarely die, in official terms at least). So, while there's no doubt that the sign is ostensibly racist, there's also a sort of exasperation and anxiety behind it that shades the issue grey, just as the Rosarno riots two weeks ago were shaded grey by the social context in which they took place, the presence of organised crime, the absence of the state, and so on - a presence and absence from which both local people and immigrants suffered on a daily basis, and in which they were all, without exception, complicit. In this type of situation, blanket accusations of racism may be as compromised, and ineffective, as the racism they're attacking. In the meantime, Pacilli says that no more Chinese customers have entered his shop - a sure sign that they do in fact read Italian. If that were the case, of course, they could enter with impunity. But whoever said fear and its consequences were logical?

* The sign has now been taken down and Pacilli has apologised to the Chinese community about any offence he might have caused. Which solves precisely nothing.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Wrap it up

This sculpture, outside the House of Deputies in Madrid, may look like a Christo but it's just been wrapped to protect it from damage during the works taking place in the square (I imagine). Christo prides himself on the fact that all his work is temporary and that he has no existing artworks. If public works take as long to complete in Spain as they do in Italy this statue looks set to remain under wraps for longer than anything ever covered by the well-known Bulgarian packager and his collaborator-wife, Jeanne-Claude, now alas dead. I can't help wondering if her body was cremated or embalmed in some way. The earliest example of meaningful wrapping I remember was Lon Chaney's Mummy. And now I really must take a nap.

The case of the haunted scrotum

Want to know more about this? I thought you might. Well, you can find out all any decent-minded person (or, indeed, andrologist) might need to know by clicking here.

By the way, there is no connection between this post and the preceding one, although I do have my suspicions about the undescended right.)

The art of public speaking... exemplified by Sarah Palin on Fox News, when asked what she thinks about Obama's slump in the poll numbers:

"Of course they're sinking. It was just a matter of time before more of that reflection of the people's uncomfortableness that they feel towards this administration is manifesting in these poll numbers," she offered.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Quality gifts from Madrid


Coming home on the train from Rome last Friday evening, I put on my earphones and then, as I invariably do, fell asleep. When I woke up, half an hour later, the train was somewhere between stations, the lights in my carriage were off and all I could see in the darkness was the face of the young woman sitting opposite me, illuminated by the screen of the Nintendo she was staring down at, like a Georges de la Tour Madonna.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Touching with intent

This is an extract from the anti-homosexuality bill proposed by the Government of Uganda:
You can read the entire disgraceful document here.

Gallery back

Maybe it's because I was exhausted and suffering from a bad case of gallery back syndrome by the time I got to the Prado last week, but these two paintings, both by Velásquez, made a big impression on me as consummate images of weariness. Even the gods get tired. Mercury and Argos don't have the strength to raise their heads, while Mars, the epitome of the professional soldier who's seen too many battles, looks as if he's wondering what he'll be told to do next. Neither of these paintings, it seems to me, could have existed without the precedent of Caravaggio's extraordinary fusion of the mundane and the divine, although I suppose it's possible Velásquez may have seen no more than one or two examples of the Italian artist's work and simply been influenced by a naturalistic zeitgeist. (I've just checked and Velásquez visited Italy twice, in 1629-30 and 1649-51, so it's more than likely that he was perfectly familiar with Caravaggio and the influence he'd had by that time. It was during Velásquez's second visit that he painted the extraordinary portrait of Pope Innocent X, criticised by the pontiff for being 'too truthful'. I wonder what Mars would have said if he'd been asked.)

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Holy moly

This may resemble a sacred anatomical relic, like Saint Bartholomew's foreskin or the toe-clippings of some martyred Roman matron, but it's actually the central part of a chiropodist's window display in the Cortes quarter of Madrid. The rest of the window is devoted to corn plasters and diagrams of half-flayed feet (which also have an inadvertent religious air, portrayals of flaying being a popular theme in late 16th and early 17th century art - there's a particularly gruesome example of some unfortunate saint having his skin peeled off in Palazzo Corsini in Rome). All the putti are doing here, with their harps and whatever the other instrument is meant to be, is framing the chiropodist's skill with a recalcitrant bunion or two.

One of the best things about Madrid was the unobtrusiveness of its churches. In five days, the only one we went into was the cathedral, an unmatchably charmless building attached like a carbuncle to the side of the Palacio Real, where it no doubt brought comfort to generations of simple-minded Hapsburgs and their court of buffoons and dwarfs. It's now the home to some of the worst religious art I've ever seen, and I imagine that's true of all the other churches we didn't bother to enter, despoiled of their riches during the civil war, which are now to be found in the Prado and elsewhere, in grand and secular state.

The book I took with me to read during my stay was C.J. Sansom's Winter in Madrid, which looks like a failure of the imagination (mine) and, in some ways, was, as I plucked it from the pile of unread novels in my study at the very last minute, as much for its size as anything else. But it turned out to be an ideal choice. It's always a pleasure to read a novel set in a place you know, and it's even better when you're discovering the city as you read, in a game of real and virtual narrative mirrors. Gran Via, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol - I shared them with Harry Brett, the novel's hero, as he struggled with poverty and corruption in post civil-war Spain and I, less manfully, with far too much to eat and drink in a much richer, and safer, city than the one the book describes. It's a well-researched novel and, I thought, thoroughly gripping on an intellectual and emotional level, its wilful flatness of tone reflecting the sort of austerity you find in films like Brief Encounter, an austerity, finally, of the heart. I don't know what Sansom's politics are, though I'm sure he's anything but extremist. Still, he spares few punches when he talks about the shameful collusion of the catholic church in the spirit-crushing destruction of Spain under Franco. There's a particularly appalling moment in the book - in the midst of the routine cruelty oppression feeds on - when some prehistoric cave paintings are found, only to be smashed to rubble and dust as pagan.

The photograph on the left is of a statue on the Gran Via, on the roof of one of the splendid 20th century pseudo-Baroque extravaganzas that line the street. When I took it, I thought of Icarus, but Icarus would have lost his wings well before hitting the ground, so now I assume it represents a fallen angel. It has a Gormley-like feel to it, as though the act of falling had stripped away the angelic qualities and left the bare man, upturned; even the wings look more like the leaves of a large succulent than aerial limbs, designed for flight. He's no more a creature of the spirit than the chubby gilded urchins are in the chiropodist's shop, entertaining their plaster foot with a tune or two.


Decades ago now, I read a short story set in the future, when time travel was so common people chose eras rather than places for their holidays: Tudor Britain rather than the Maldives. The hero, for reasons I don't remember, decided to visit Judaea in the days leading up to the crucifixion of Christ. Naturally, the holidaymakers had to be prepared to play their part in whichever event they chose to visit, to blend in, and the hero, with the rest of his group, was dressed and coached appropriately, instructed in what to do and say. The tour organizers took them through the main scenes: Gethsemane, the Passover with Pontius Pilate addressing the crowd and asking them whether they wanted him to pardon Jesus or Barabbas, the stations of the cross, and so on. When the group was ready, the holiday began. Everything went as expected. Before long they were gathered in the square beneath the governor's palace and Pontius Pilate was talking to them, in Latin, with the two men – Jesus and Barabbas - standing by his side. The hero didn't understand what Pilate said, but he waited for his cue to shout Barabbas. Free Barabbas. It wasn't until he began to shout that he looked around and saw that everyone shouting Barabbas had come with him, from the future, and that all around the square, pushed to the edge, their voices drowned out by the tourists, were the actual inhabitants of the place, who were shouting Jesus. Free Jesus.

This story came back to me a few days ago when I was in Madrid. It's a shallow comparison, I know, but I was standing in Puerta del Sol, at the heart of the city, and enjoying that feeling of being both part of, and isolated from, a place, a feeling that's probably the essence of being a tourist. And then it dawned on me that all the voices I could hear around me, in what should have been a ferment of movida madrilena, a ferment I'd travelled over eight hundred miles to experience, were Italian. I might as well have been in Piazza Navona. We went to eat in a place called La Taurina, surrounded by the severed heads of bulls and matadors' capes, framed like fans, and every table was occupied by Italians, calling for paella and sangria and for Barabbas to be freed.I looked round, wondering where the real Madrilenos were hiding, waiting for the moment to reclaim their city.

Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long. They were packed like bocquerones (anchovies - don't worry, I'm just showing off) in the Museo del Jamon just round the corner, queueing in deceptively ordered fashion for rolls of exquisitely scented cured ham and something to wash them down with. The floor was covered with crumpled paper napkins, crumbs, the occasional abandoned glass; the noise around us was exclusively, exhilaratingly, intimidatingly Spanish. It felt like the real thing, which, of course, is what we were after, however much our presence contaminated it. Even the prices were foreign, as if we'd also time-travelled to an age in which a glass of decent wine and a ham roll could be had for a couple of euros.